The Bible as Tennessee’s official state book? Apparently not.
Tennesseans–81 percent of them, anyway–are Christian. And they may love their Scriptures, but a House plan to name the Bible as the official state book was defeated last month in the State Senate.
Senator Steve Southerland, a Republican who represents the citizens of Morristown, and other supporters of the bill had argued that the Bible has had great economic and historic impact in Tennessee. A majority in the State House agreed; the House passed the bill by a 55-38 vote on April 15, after more than two hours of debate.
But the following day, the Senate voted to refer the bill back to committee–thereby ensuring that it won’t be brought for a vote this year, if ever.
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Are there any other states with official symbols that have religious undertones?
While the Tennessee Bible bill is likely dead for 2015, it got me to wondering about whether other states have embraced religious books or symbols, or whether the modern impetus toward “tolerance” and “inclusivity” means that religious symbols have no place in public life.
Actually, I did find at least a couple of other faith-focused symbols.
In Florida, there is a “state play” based on the state’s religious heritage. Cross and Sword, a pageant based on the play written by Paul Green, is a dramatization of the Spanish colonization of St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city. Some of Florida’s earliest settlers–Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez, the state’s first governor; French naval officer Jean Ribault; and Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of Menéndez’s fleet, first missionary and celebrant of the state’s First Mass–are memorialized in the play.
And in one state, a 2014 proposal which didn’t make it to the final vote would have appealed to an even narrower group of citizens. Last year in Louisiana, lawmakers considered a bill to make the King James Bible the official state book.
While most state symbols are secular, many of them do convey solid American values.
And if you stretch to consider national symbols, the Pew Research Center reports that there are 64 countries which have religious symbols on their national flags: 31 with Christian symbols; 21 Islamic; Hinduism and Buddhism, 3; and other religions, 6.
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What happens next in Tennessee?
It seems unlikely that Senator Southerland will just forget about it. In fact, he’s already indicated that he will introduce the bill again next year.
But Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris opposed the bill and threatened to offer three amendments, if the Senate didn’t refer the bill to committee. The first two would have rendered the vote meaningless by including many other religious texts within the definition of “Bible.” The third amendment was intended to kill the bill, by forcing the state to hire attorneys to defend any lawsuits filed over the law, at an estimated cost of $100,000.
Florida’s attorney general, Herbert Slatery, believes the bill violates both the state and federal constitutions. Governor Bill Haslam also opposes the bill.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, had opposed the bill, insisting that it belittles the Bible by placing it next to state symbols such as the state amphibian (the cave salamander), the state flower (tomato), and the state beverage (milk). “I am a Christian,” Ramsey said, “but I am also a constitutionalist and a conservative. It would be fiscally irresponsible to put the state in a position to have to spend tax dollars defending a largely symbolic piece of legislation.”